Honor Your Limitations

Richard went to speak with Joseph, his pastor, about some difficulty he was having with his father. Having completed high school, Richard had made a decision about which career he wanted to pursue. The problem was that his father vehemently opposed his choice. Richard knew he would not change his career choice in order to please his father. What he wanted was some advice about how to handle the situation; he did not want an explosion that would tear the family apart. That was the issue he brought to his pastor Joseph.

Joseph had met Richard’s father a few times after services, but he only had some vague impressions of him. That is the first thing he told Richard. “I don’t know your father much,” he said. But then he made a crucial mistake—he proceeded to give advice anyway. Joseph added: “But based on the little that I can sense about him, here is what I think.” Joseph then suggested a loving, compassionate way for Richard to approach this with his father.

Richard was delighted that Joseph, a person whom he respected and looked up to, was able to come up with something. And a few weeks later, Richard approached his father using the approach that Joseph suggested.

The results, however, were catastrophic. Richard’s worst fears were immediately confirmed. His father announced that he would do his best to “break” Richard’s decision about his career choice. Things quickly deteriorated, and shortly thereafter Richard left home. His relationship with his father never recovered.

What went wrong here? Joseph Listened Well (Advice Skill #1), Had an Invitation to give advice (Advice Skill #2), and Offered Without Insisting (Advice Skill #3). The problem was that Joseph spoke about something he didn’t know. He did not follow the principle of ‘Know and Honor Your Limitations’ (Advice Skill #4).

Joseph was aware that he didn’t know Richard’s father well. He told Richard as much. Despite that, Joseph gave Richard advice, with catastrophic results.

Joseph would have handled this more skillfully had he said something like this: “While it is true that I sometimes see your father after services, I don’t know him nearly well enough to offer advice about this situation. In addition, I am not trained in family dynamics. Would you like me to help you find a qualified counselor?”

That would have been humble, and it would have been wise. Joseph did not have the information he needed to be able to offer advice.

Here are two questions you can ask yourself that will help you ‘Know and Honor Your Limitations’ (Advice Skill #4), and prevent the suffering that sometimes results from poorly given advice:

  • “Do I know what I need to know about the situation—the people and the circumstances involved—in order to give effective advice?” If not, don’t give advice.
    “Is this an area in which I have expertise?” If it isn’t, tread very, very carefully.
  • If you ask yourself these two questions and follow the guidelines, you will save yourself, and those you advise, much grief.

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